Images of God

Second Sunday in Lent, February 21st, 2016

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17—4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you see God? When you think of God, what do you see in your minds’ eye? Do you see Jesus hanging from a cross? Or do you see an old white guy in a bathrobe sitting on a cloud? Or Jesus carrying a sheep back to the flock? Or a judge frowning down at sinful humans? Those are probably the most common images of God that we have. And, certainly, they are good and right images for God who created us in his image, reaches out to us, who claims us as his children, who was born in human flesh, lived, died, and rose again that we might have life. But those shouldn’t be our only images of God, because they limit our understanding of who God is and what God does. The very nature of God is bigger than we can imagine—God, who created the universe and all that is in it, seen and unseen, is so far beyond us that we can’t understand it. God comes to us in human form so that we can see him and know him, but that doesn’t mean that that’s all he is. It’s tempting, looking at the pictures of Jesus, of God up in the heavens, to let our view of God get small.

There are actually a lot of different images for God in the Bible, and we get two of them I our readings today. In our first lesson, God makes a covenant with Abram, restating and emphasizing the earlier promise that he would give Abram and Sarai children. Abram, being very old and already having waited for many years, asked when it would happen. God didn’t give him a time frame, but he did make a covenant with him. A covenant is the very deepest form of promise there is. Marriage vows are covenants. Treaties are covenants. And, just like today, such deep promises got ceremonies to memorialize them and serve as a witness to them. Covenants in those days were accompanied by the sacrificing of animals. Each side made promises, and then you sacrificed a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon. You cut them in half, and you walked between them, and then you had a feast together celebrating the covenant—just like a wedding banquet today. But the thing is, when the time comes for God to walk through the sacrificed animals? God does not show up looking like a human being. God shows up as smoke and fire.

It’s not the only time God comes as smoke and fire. When God wanted to get Moses’ attention to send him back to Egypt to free his people, God appeared as a burning bush. When God led the people of Israel through the wilderness after freeing them from Egypt, God appeared as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. When God sent the Disciples out to preach and teach about Jesus, after the resurrection, God appeared to them as tongues of flame. This is a way God has revealed himself to us many times. So what is it about fire? What can this tell us about God? Well, life isn’t possible without fire. The sun is a burning ball of gas, and without it, nothing could live on Earth. It would be too cold, and too dark. We could not live—and neither could any other plant or animal. And the Sun’s fire is necessary in ways we don’t even realize. When we’re out in the sun’s light, the rays from that burning ball of gas help our bodies to create vitamin D, which we need. No sun, no Vitamin D, and we get very sick. On a smaller level, without fire we wouldn’t have light or heat in our homes, and we wouldn’t be able to cook. And yes, this is true even for electric light and heat—most electricity in this country comes from coal or natural gas or other things that burn. So fire is absolutely necessary for life, on a lot of different levels.

But at the same time, fire is dangerous. It’s unpredictable. It’s not something we can control, on a very fundamental level. When we take it for granted, when we don’t pay attention, we get burned. Not because the fire has it in for us, but because that much power just can’t be taken for granted without consequences. God is like fire, because without God there is no life, and God is at work in us like the rays of the sun even when we don’t notice God’s presence. And God is so powerful, he is beyond our control.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson, with a very different image of God. Jesus is warned that King Herod wanted to kill him, which he already knew. He knows that he is going to his death, he knows that he is going to die to save people, and he knows that the very people he wants to save are going to reject him. They’re not going to listen. They will turn from him, and he’s going to die for them anyway. And so he says a lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

So that’s another image right there. Ever thought of God as a mother hen, anxiously trying to shield her chicks from a big, dangerous world? That’s how Jesus describes himself here. Now, a hen is not a big dramatic animal. A hen is not something that goes around looking for trouble. Hens are small, vulnerable, ordinary things. But hens are very good at sheltering their chicks, at protecting them. And they were a common image that everyone in Jesus’ day would recognize. Ordinary love, ordinary protection, ordinary shelter from the storms of life. In big storms and gentle downpours, the hen is there for her brood, protecting them, leading them, and guiding them along life’s path. It’s not some big grand dramatic thing. It’s quiet. Ordinary. Easy for the world to overlook—and yet, it makes all the difference for the chicks who receive shelter, comfort, and guidance from their mother’s wings.

And that’s what Jesus wants to do for us. He wants to be our shelter throughout all the storms of life, big or small. And sure, we might be able to survive some of them without his help, but would you really rather struggle through on your own than face challenges with guidance, shelter, and love? It’s not just about the big, grand moments in our lives—it’s about the small, ordinary, everyday ones, too. Throughout all of our lives, big and small, God wants to wrap us with maternal love and devotion. We’re so used to thinking of God as our Father—and quite rightly, because he is our Father—but what does it mean that God is our Mother, too? And what does it mean that God is our shelter from the storm?

The way we see God affects how we understand God’s Word, and it affects who we are as God’s children. If you see God only as a stern judge, you may not even notice when God calls us to mercy and forgiveness. If you see God only as the Good Shepherd calling for the lost sheep, you may not even notice when God calls us to judgment. If you see God as some remote, far-off white guy in a bathrobe on a cloud, you may have trouble seeing God’s presence and relevance in your day-to-day life. Any one view of God can blind us to God’s nature, for God is too big and complicated to fit into the small boxes we try to stuff him into. God is the mother hen sheltering us under her wings, and God is our Father in heaven. God is the fire that lights up the world, and God is the water from which we are born. God is the Good Shepherd, and God is the sheep that was slain for our sins. God is the great judge, and God is the source of all mercy and forgiveness. God is the one who made promises to Abraham so long ago, and God is the one who still keeps his promises to us today.

Amen.

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